*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*
Theatre Ad Infinitum are a company which constantly reinvents itself; two years ago, Translunar Paradise told a heartbreaking story of two people in love using masks and music, whilst 2013’s Ballad of the Burning Star considered Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the form of a cabaret drag act. This year, they’re back with Light, which is a futuristic sci-fi romp about privacy and surveillance told entirely through hand-held lights using no spoken text whatsoever.
In some ways, it’s the perfect show for Latitude, with no dialogue to listen to over the boom of music and a hi-tech aesthetic to keep our minds buzzing. Light takes place late in the twenty-first century, and over the course of a handful of different timelines we discover a dystopian society where humans are fitted with implants so that individuals around them can control and read their thoughts. Red lights float in and out of brains as information travels across the ether.
If the content is 1984 meets Blade Runner, then the form feels much like the expressionistic world of Dr Caligari. Aside from red pinpricks of light, pretty much the entirety of the piece is in monochrome, with bright white bulbs and LEDs illuminating the faces of the five-strong cast. Like early cinema, we get short snapshots rather than roving scenes, and a projector provides captions to clarify narrative. Much of the power of Light lies in the audience’s imaginative ability, as we construct what goes on in the gaps and create a whole world which is all-but invisible to us.
A perfectly timed soundtrack of music and noise helps this startling and original mode of storytelling, even allowing humour to creep in at certain moments. More than anything, however, the sound design allows Theatre Ad Infinitum to create the rhythms of an oppressive, predictable world in which everyone is constantly being watched. The society we are presented with may be in the future, but like our own there are issues surrounding free speech, protest and the manipulation of minds. It all feels eerily familiar.
At present, Light loses its novelty about twenty minutes before its end, and sometimes repetitive scenes make it difficult to focus, but philosophical musings on “inner light” and a strongly political subtext create intrigue regardless. This is the company’s most technically assured and formally ambitious show to date, and the images presented throughout are the kind that flash up in your mind for weeks afterwards.
Five years on from its première, Void Story is still during the rounds and continues to delight audiences. It’s a strange but beautiful mix of live graphic novel, post-apocalyptic novel and performance art, but is completely compelling. The narrative thrust of the show follows a couple – Jackson and Kim – as they make their way around a largely deserted realm of cities and forests, coming across various larger-than-life characters along the way. They are plunged into sewers, chased by bears and bundled into army vehicles. It’s all kind of thrilling, really.
Crucially, Void Story does not use conventional theatrical methods of storytelling; rather than seeing all this played out in front of us by actors, the company chooses to project beautifully created, collage-like images onto a screen and accompany them with text spoken by four actors sat in pairs on either side of the stage. Immediately, then, we get a disconnect between story and storytelling, but this makes the plot no less absorbing. The four performers (Robin Arthur, Richard Lowdon, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor) fiddle with scripts, tweak microphones and create sounds, but our attention is perpetually given to the on-screen story.
There’s something of the bricolage in Tim Etchells’ images, with photographs merged on photographs mixed with pencil drawing and cartoon creations, creating a dark black-and-white aesthetic which is full of character and surreal charm. Accompanied by occasional high-pitched talking and frequent morbidity, Void Story often treads on the beautiful line between deeply dark and wretchedly funny, always spinning on the axis as episodes seem to become worse and worse for our protagonists.
Through all its contemplations of the city and communication between individuals in a decaying world, Forced Entertainment also manage to ask questions about survival and positivity. At one point, for example, Kim suggests that hope and optimism are not synonymous, arguing it is only possible to be one or the other in this terrifying vision of our world.
Void Story also fits surprisingly well into the theatre tent programme at Latitude, with its mix of popular culture, cinematic aesthetic and simple storytelling finding itself perfectly placed on the Friday morning before festivities truly get under way. This is Forced Entertainment at their best, entertaining audiences whilst also interrogating a theme in a form which asks questions about the acts of storytelling and theatre-making.
Sometimes, shows just aren’t suited to the festival environment. Even in the relatively quiet and contemplative context of Latitude, theatre needs to grab you as it fights against the hubbub and rhythms murmuring outside the tent. We can forgive shows, then, if they aren’t quite able to work in this context. All theatre, however, should be consistent; though it’s possible to excuse Jamaica, Farewell for not quite working in the surroundings of Henham Park, its inconsistency of storytelling remains troubling and means an interesting journey never quite packs the punch it deserves.
Debra Ehrhardt’s solo show tells the true story of her upbringing in and eventual escape from Jamaica as a teenager. Set during a time of political struggle and conflict, the show – which was first shown in the US in 2007 – demonstrates the difficulties of growing up in a country in minor turmoil and the attraction of living elsewhere even though borders are impossible to cross.
In this sense, Jamaica, Farewell undoubtedly speaks to pertinent questions we are asking in the UK today, but this is largely a show about Jamaican and US identity and the promises made by each. More than this, however, Ehrhardt’s piece looks at parent-child relationships and the tensions within them, offering many moments of humanity and humour.
Despite this, however, Jamaica, Farewell is riddled with problems. Aside from the fact that Ehrhardt’s representation of younger self is little more than a giggly schoolgirl who falls in love instantly and is willing to follow the first man she sees to America, the show is frustratingly inconsistent. Various items organised in a line on stage (including a crate, a lectern and seats) seem to gesture towards different areas or emotions in Debbie’s life, but the conceit soon falls apart and is nigh-on impossible to follow when she suddenly breaks from the horizontal line and heads upstage without reason. Similarly, the framing device of a school talent show is underdeveloped and not followed-through, so that the entire story ends up feeling a bit like a rehearsal rather than a fully-fledged play.
Ehrhardt is buoyant with energy throughout, but it’s not quite enough to salvage the bizarre staging choices and lack of genuine enquiry surrounding the political undercurrents in the piece. It’s a touching piece of writing with some heartfelt sequences and poetic speeches, but Jamaica, Farewell is similar to its protagonist in that its story feels like it’s longing to escape to bigger and better things.
Sixth Sense – Luke Jermay
Magic cards on the table: I one hundred per cent do not believe in psychics or fortune-tellers. Being a rationalist, I refuse to believe that the human mind has any ability whatsoever to reach out to another mind through the medium of telepathy, and believe prediction can only truly occur within the scientific realm. Still, there’s something inordinately fascinating about watching performers predict facts about individuals and the future as if they were genuine psychics.
In Luke Jermay’s Sixth Sense, the performer asks self-selecting members of the audience to write down on a piece of paper a question they want answering about their future. Coins and tape are then strapped to his eyes, rendering him blind, before he selects pieces of paper and finds audience members by ‘predicting’ their initials and birth date (which would be impressive at the best of time but is nigh-on astonishing when an event like this isn’t ticketed as such). He then follows this with a (fairly broad) answer to their question, which tends to be fairly accurate if we are to believe the audience member’s account of their question.
Jermay is – above all else – a performer, and to lose sight of that would be to give ‘psychic powers’ credence where they deserve none. Like theatre, magic shows like this rely on illusion and deceit, but in a setting which defines itself as real and bases its narratives on those of the audience. It’s weird – in conventional theatre, we mostly remain aware that what we’re watching is fiction, but something in us shifts when watching these kind of shows as part of us yearns for the illusion (and that’s all it is, let’s not forget) to be real. In turn, this makes the coups all the more spectacular.
Left, right and centre, Jermay predicts occupations, relationship troubles, holidays and anxieties with a showmanship which rivals Derren Brown’s. Throughout, he holds us in the palm of his hands even though we know he’s engaged in some sleight-of-hand wizardry, meaning that when he predicts Japanese teenagers living as vampires, a Miley Cyrus sex-tape and a murder in space at the end of the show, a not insignificant part of us leaves wondering whether these things will indeed come true. He did predict the World Cup, after all. It’s all bollocks, though. Obviously.
Frisky & Mannish: Just Too Much
In the past, the shows of pop deconstructionists Frisky and Mannish have mixed styles and genres in order to demonstrate the basic history and rules of popular music and have even considered the lives and music of members of the ’27 club’. In their latest show, Just Too Much, which previewed at Latitude this weekend in a slightly truncated form a little later than scheduled, F&M look at break-downs in pop, from Miley Cyrus to Sinead O’Connor, and in the process ask some important (and hilarious) questions about gender and celebrity in contemporary music.
Just Too Much begins with an imagined series of letters from Sinead O’Connor to a variety of icons who have made questionable decisions in the past, finishing with Frisky and Mannish themselves as the Irish singer berates them for their actions. This sequence is then followed by a number which showcases the pair’s not insignificant amount of genius, as they pull apart and the meanings of various pop songs as they attempt to find a feminist pop anthem. Beyonce, Destiny’s Child, the Spice Girls and Miley are all considered then binned, leaving a surprising but brilliant choice at the end of it all.
Over the course of the next hour, we’re treated to a sublime sea-shanty version of Rather Be (which is almost as good as Clean Bandit’s own rendition the following night in the 6Music tent) and other pop delicacies before a surreal but masterful dream sequence, which draws on everything from Disney to Debussy. Though the various songs are ostensibly fairly disparate, the duo manage to find some kind of through line in order to extrapolate on their chosen themes, taken apart each with the tenacity of a rottweiler and the charm of a Disney prince.
Even though Just Too Much is still going through a period of honing and sharpening on its way to Edinburgh and was without its opening and closing numbers on this occasion, it already looks like it may be F&M’s best show to date. Here, the years of interrogation, humour and craft come to a head as they manage to make a show which is hilarious and honest and asks us to reconsider our own attitudes to popular music. In their trademark postmodern fashion, however, the critique is not without love and irony, and the pair manage to subvert and undermine these tropes just as they succumb to their glorious and attractive potential to entertain.